Ash Wednesday

Paul had a problem.

Ash Wednesday | Lent Season 2015
"Ash Wednesday | Lent Season 2015" by John Ragai via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.

February 10, 2016

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

Paul had a problem.

His way of doing ministry in Corinth was severely criticized by other missionaries who had entered the church from outside Corinth. They were competing with Paul for the church’s loyalty. What were they like and what did they have against Paul? If we believe Paul’s characterization they were uncompromising moralists. In 2 Corinthians 11:5 he sarcastically calls them “super-apostles” and the language he uses to describe them in 11:20 quite likely would have put ancient readers in mind of Cynic philosophers, whose moral criticism bit and wounded those whom these “dog philosophers” (“Cynic” is related to the Greek word for dog) detected living not according to nature. Just to be clear: Paul’s rivals in Corinth were not Cynics, but the apostle used characteristics commonly attributed to this branch of ancient philosophy in order to highlight features of his own ministry (he is gentle, adapts to the needs and circumstances of others, and prizes forgiveness above all) and to dissuade the church in Corinth from following them. They are the “disloyal ones” in 2 Corinthians 6:14 and his plea in this verse for the church not to be yoked with them summarizes one of the purposes in his writing this letter. Take a look at 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 where Paul had previously employed this strategy of contrasting his gentle style of ministry, his desire to impart his very own soul to the church, with the severity of unnamed leaders (who also look a lot like Cynics).

For their part, his opponents thought Paul was a flatter (see 2 Corinthians 1:17) using tricks of rhetoric (2 Corinthians 1:12) to mask his real power. These critics said his forcefulness, which was very much to their liking, was perfectly evident in his letters but not where it belonged, in his physical presence with the community (2 Corinthians 10:9-10). They said in person he lacked the one thing absolutely required for leadership: frank or free speech. Note the instances in the letter when Paul makes the counterclaim that he does indeed have and he indeed does use bold speech: 2 Corinthians 3:12 (though here the NRSV has mistranslated the Greek term parresia); 2 Corinthians 7:4; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:2. So both the critics and Paul are bold speakers. What Paul wants to explore in 2 Corinthians 5-6 is the difference in the way each uses parresia. Paul’s point is this: whereas they speak boldly without caring for the shaming effects of their severity (see 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 for the possible effects of this kind of frank speech) Paul surrounds his frank speech with affirmations of friendship and love as he exhorts the Corinthian church also to do (2 Corinthians 2:7-8). In 2 Corinthians 6:4-10 Paul parodies the philosophers’ practice of legitimating their leadership by recounting the hardships which have displayed their unconquerable souls; what legitimates Paul’s ministry, however, is the combination of truth-telling with unfeigned love (2 Corinthians 6:6-7). One can of course suspect manipulation in Paul’s approach. Yet it can still be said that in terms of the protocols of speaking frankly in the ancient world he aligns himself with the gentle moral guides in opposition to the Cynics who displayed their own freedom and spiritual sovereignty by wounding and walking away without a care for the shame they have induced.

This care, which Paul embraced and wants to make the centerpiece of his ministry, the opponents called “slavery.” To be so concerned for the effects of one’s words on others restricted the freedom of speech and in their estimation differed in no respect from the obsequiousness of slaves. Note Paul’s defiant response in 2 Corinthians 4:5 when he contrasts himself with the overbearing, lordly “super-apostles”: “We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves on account of Jesus.” Although it is beyond the scope of this essay to document, Paul’s likening himself to a slave might be an instance of a motif found in Greek and Latin poetry called servitium amoris, the slavery of love. In ancient poetry lovers were often called slaves of their beloveds. Why? For their devotion and desire bordering on madness and for the demeaning condition of always waiting on the beloved’s word.

Now back to Paul’s problem. He hasn’t made it any easier on himself by preaching himself as a slave to the Corinthians. Even more: whereas the word “ministry” by its association in English with “administration” has a bureaucratic and management ring to it, the Greek term diakonia in 2 Corinthians 6:3 referred unambiguously to slavery, the condition of being owned by another, the lord (kyrios). So, when in 6:3 Paul worries that the ministry (that is, his slavery to the Corinthians) might be faulted it becomes clear that the defense of his ministry is not aimed at the “super-apostles” who are already charging him with flattery, lack of free speech, and servility. Rather, it is to the Corinthians that Paul feels he must make a case for the legitimacy of his leadership. In fact, the NRSV translation of 6:3a (“We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way”) is quite misleading. The Greek term which stands behind “obstacle” is proskope, which is better translated “offense” (as in the KJV) or “injury.” The term was used to describe injury done by severe moral criticism. If this is the case in this verse, then Paul’s ministry opens itself to blame if his words have injured anyone, indeed if his words have taken on the primary characteristic of the speech of the “super-apostles.” If Paul’s speech has left anyone wounded, and if he has not made up with anyone he injured, then Paul’s ministry of grace, forgiveness, indeed his slave like devotion has been shown to be a fraud. No wonder he pleads so vehemently in 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 for forgiveness. What he had done to the Corinthians, what created a time of forgiveness, has to wait until the next essay on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.